MACHIAS, Maine — The administration of Washington County’s Down East Community Hospital terms “misleading” allegations by a union representing 60 nurses and technical employees that patient safety would be undermined by proposed staffing changes.
The 25-bed hospital and the union are now embroiled in efforts to reach an agreement on a new contract. Those represented by the Maine State Nurses Association/National Nurses United union have been working without a contract since Jan. 12, 2012, when the old agreement expired. Talks have been under way since last November and now involve federal mediation, with the next bargaining session scheduled for March 27.
Julie Hixson, a spokesperson for the hospital, said in a statement released Thursday that the salary increases that have been offered to date are generous by regional industry standards.
“After a second negotiating session with a federal mediator in attendance, Down East Community Hospital’s offer to raise salaries of its nurses by an average of 11 percent and of its technical staff by an average of 8.5 percent over a three-year period has been rejected by their union, the Maine State Nurses Association,” Hixson said. “These offers are greater than what MSNA agreed to at [Ellsworth’s] Maine Coast Memorial for its nurses late last year and more than Millinocket and Houlton this year.”
Hixson contends the issues on the table are purely economic and that none of them would impact patient safety, staffing levels or the emergency room protocols. Those issues, she said, were addressed and resolved last year. For the second consecutive budget year, the hospital is implementing a number of initiatives to reduce operating costs, given that it finished its last fiscal year with a loss of $2.3 million on an operating budget of $35 million.
A union official disagreed Friday that safety is not an issue.
“The issue in this contract negotiation is absolutely a public health issue,” said Vanessa Sylvester, the Maine collective bargaining coordinator for the union. “A community relies of a well-staffed hospital. If there is a staffing shortage on any given shifts or in any departments, that becomes a problem. At the heart of this dispute are staffing issues.”
Hixson said a “sticking point” in the contract talks has been the issue of on-call pay and night shift differentials. What’s being paid now, she said, is “significantly above the prevailing rates paid by other hospitals.”
“Our current night shift differential is 11 percent of the individual employee’s base rate with an additional $5 per hour,” she said. “This creates an average differential of $8 per hour, which is equal to $15,000 annually. According to the Maine Society for Healthcare Human Resource Administration survey, the average night shift differential in the state is $3.35.”
Hixson terms “misleading” five claims made by the union in statements released by the bargaining unit this week, and she quotes those claims in her statement: “The hospital’s administration has proposed cuts that would risk staffing shortages as well as other proposals that have been divisive and harmful to the relationship between staff and the administration … they attempted to make cuts in the very areas that have had recruitment problems in the past … this could risk staffing shortages throughout the hospital … we feel the proposed cuts are bad for patients and unfair to employees … MSNA proposals have been about patient safety, recruitment, and retention.”
Hixson countered in her rebuttal, “First and foremost, there is no patient safety issue. We are staffed appropriately and have multiple applications on file of nurses who wish to work in our facility. Secondly, there are no proposed cuts on the table at this time. The proposed night shift reduction would only affect new hires into the organization. Night nurse wages will remain intact until the new wage scales catch up to them. The union’s stance is that if we make these changes people will leave, and that assumption is not based on fact. In these difficult times, we cannot make financial decisions based on unsubstantiated feelings or fear.”
Hixson notes that the union has settled for “less generous” contract terms from other area hospitals. “It makes one beg the question: Are we being treated differently because we are in the precarious position of building back consumer confidence and, therefore, more vulnerable than others?”
The response to the union’s claims also includes this comment by DECH President and CEO Douglas Jones: “We need to build upon a competitively compensated work force. Our very significant offer to the union does that. In this economy, we felt this offer was both generous and a necessary risk, given our current financial position. I remain optimistic that we will successfully negotiate a continued strong relationship.”